This very short novel reads like a fantasy story like Tehanu for the first 50 pages before it becomes clear that it is a post-nuclear SF setting.
It follows a young, female healer called “Snake” within her probationary year. The eponymous Dreamsnakes are one of three kinds of snakes that healers in this setting use. They are irreplacable, because they rarely reproduce, can’t be cloned and a loss is therefore devastating for healers. Now, Snake lost her dreamsnake, and this novel is about the quest to find replacement.
On her quest, she falls in love, adopts a child, goes through lots of harshness.
Main protagonist Snake is presented in general as a strong woman, who commits errors but also learns from them. It is very easy to identify with her.
Writing is often very emotional, it uses more descriptive than action-oriented scenes, is more on the quiet side.
I found a very good interview at io9. McIntyre talks about how she came to the story (a Clarion workshop word draw), her reaction about Arevin’s (non-)masculinity, the publishing situation in the 70s, the out-of-print problem of older book (and bookviewcafe’s answer to it). She also talks about one of the side-character’s (Merideth) gender – you might have noticed, that his/her sex isn’t revealed at all through pronouns etc.
The interview deepened my impression that there are lots of interesting ideas pressed into this slim book. Emotions, characterization, and setting are absolutely worthwhile your reading time, and it deserved the triple Hugo/Nebula/Locus awards.
Additionally, I’d like to point out a review by Ursula K. Le Guin.